The novelist took the slow road to success but is now a Pulitzer-winner and a bestseller. As she returns to her much-loved creation Lucy Barton, she discusses childhood, loneliness – and perseverance

Three years ago, Elizabeth Strout was in New York sitting in on rehearsals for the stage version of her novel My Name Is Lucy Barton (a show that came to the Bridge theatre in London, directed by Richard Eyre) and was watching Laura Linney, an actor for whom she has the fondest regard, inch her way into the part. Linney stepped into the rehearsal space, pushed her spectacles on to the top of her head and started to murmur something about her character’s ex-husband – William. Strout, overhearing, exclaimed: “Oh William!” It was as if Linney had given her permission: she would write another Lucy Barton novel because William deserved a story of his own. Oh William! became the title of her new book and it has all the familiar pleasures of her writing: the clean prose, the slow reveals, the wisdom – what Hilary Mantel once described as “an attention to reality so exact that it goes beyond a skill and becomes a virtue” – the qualities that led to Strout winning the Pulitzer for fiction. But did she ever find out what was in Linney’s mind? “Laura has no memory of the moment at all, she was in her zone, doing whatever she was doing,” she laughs.

She is talking on Zoom – and as women of more or less the same age (she is 65), we find ourselves bonding instantly, commenting on our lame reflexes with technology, marvelling that we are able to talk at what seems an arm’s stretch and with the Atlantic between us. We confess to a dislike at having to look at ourselves on screen and reassure each other we look fine. Strout is sitting in what I guess to be her study, with pale yellow walls, books and paintings – a calm, civilised room. It feels absurdly easy to talk to her, as if we were catching up after a long gap.

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